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Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart speaks to reporters at a news conference in Knoxville in this 2012 file photo.

KNOXVILLE — After 17 months of anticipation, mystery and a little bit of controversy, the circled date almost has arrived.

July 1, 2015.

When the clock strikes midnight Tuesday night, Tennessee officially will become a Nike school, fulfilling an announcement the university made in January 2014.

At noon Wednesday, the Volunteers will launch their new apparel partnership with a live stream on UTsports.com hosted by former Tennessee defensive back and current NFL analyst Charles Davis and the SEC Network's Maria Taylor. There, Tennessee will unveil the new uniforms for each of its teams. It's expected to be quite the production.

"Nike is the right partner for the University of Tennessee moving forward," athletic director Dave Hart said in the release announcing the new partnership for the Vols, who have been with Adidas since 1997.

From administrators and coaches to players and fans, there has been excitement surrounding the new partnership from the moment it was announced.

"We've got people wanting to pre-order stuff and asking for one of every style, please hold it for them and stuff like that," said David Bradley, the owner of the College Station store in Hamilton Place mall.

"There's a lot of excitement."

There's been a level of mystery, too.

Out of respect for Adidas and with the aim of generating as much anticipation as possible for Wednesday's launch, Tennessee officials have remain tight-lipped on what changes may be ahead and how much Nike will change the university's traditional sports look and brand.

On various social media platforms, though, there have been some sneak peeks as Wednesday looms.

The Swoosh has been popping up at a couple of places across campus, such as the wall of the Anderson Training Center, the hub of the Vols football program, and on the glass doors outside the primary team merchandise shop in Neyland Stadium, one of the top places fans where can purchase the new apparel Wednesday.

Images of a new font — a sleeker look with the tops of the letters of "Tennessee" shaped like the state's outline — have popped up on the court of Pratt Pavilion, the practice facility for the basketball programs, and some signage for a couple of football camps the Vols hosted earlier this month.

Nike has been guilty of creating some outlandish uniforms, particularly in football, in recent years, but Tennessee's brand and tradition are strong enough that many expect Nike to keep the look fairly clean. Orange and white will remain the base colors. Expect Tennessee's recent adoption of smoky gray as a third color rather than black to continue.

Store owners such as Bradley and Jeff Goodfriend, the president of Alumni Hall, LLC, which operates three retail stores in Knoxville and two in the midstate and has a fourth location opening in Bristol this summer, haven't seen any of the merchandise that soon will be flying off the shelves and racks of their stores.

"I have not seen one piece of merchandise," said Goodfriend, who added that he essentially wrote orders for "thousands and thousands of units on nothing" eight or nine months ago.

Bradley recalled a similar process of buying unknown merchandise when Georgia changed logos a couple of years ago.

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An entrance to Neyland Stadium promotes the beginning of the University of Tennessee's deal with Nike on Wednesday.

"The way you buy with Nike is through a pre-booked system, and it's normally eight to 15 minths in advance," he explained. "This was a year ago we were buying this stuff, and at that time, and even up till now, there's still no images.

"But you look through the catalog and you look at Alabama and you look at Georgia and you look at Florida and you can kind of imagine what Tennessee's going to look like, and you just order it blindly. I've been buying for such a long time, I have a good idea based off the other teams what Tennessee's going to look like."

Tennessee's deal with Nike is not as lucrative as its most recent agreement with Adidas, which paid the university $1.95 million annually and $1.8 million in equipment and apparel.

According to the eight-year deal with Nike, which runs through June 2023, Tennessee will receive $1 million annually from Nike for the first four years of the agreement and $900,000 annually on the back half of the contract. Nike also paid Tennessee a one-time commitment bonus of $2 million last year.

Because of its need to replace all of its uniforms this season, Tennessee has an allotment of $3.4 million it can spend on Nike equipment and apparel in the first year of the agreement. The number drops to $2.6 million next year before increasing by $100,000 each year. In the final year of the deal the allowance is $3.2 million.

Tennessee's athletic department and "flagship" programs — football and men's and women's basketball — are entitled to an additional $200,000 per year in Nike Elite services.

According to the contract, Tennessee will receive 13 percent of net sales from licensed merchandise from Nike compared to a 9.5 percent royalty rate it was receiving from Adidas.

Those sales should be pretty strong in the weeks and months following Wednesday's launch.

"It's going to be big," Bradley said. "The only thing I can really compare it to right now is we have four stores in West Tennessee and the Memphis area, and when Arkansas went from Adidas to Nike, it was huge. And Arkansas is by no means one of our top teams. They might be top 15. But for a two-year span, we just crushed it with Arkansas.

"Now that it's Tennessee and it's one of our top teams in most of our locations, this is going to be a big deal."

Tennessee's path to Nike hasn't been entirely smooth, though.

The university's decision, announced in November, to unify all sports except for women's basketball with the Power T logo and "Volunteers" name as part of the university's rebranding structure initially didn't create much of a backlash, but it's received more attention and more criticism the past six months.

The response to the perceived elimination of the Lady Vols logo and brand has included some informal protests, petitions to state representatives in Nashville and the creation of websites and social media accounts aimed at "saving the Lady Vols."

Hart has been the target of most of the criticism, though the decision wasn't solely his.

"I've never, ever — my entire career — been offended by people's opinions," he said during an interview with "The Nation," a statewide Vol Network show, in late February. "It's part of it. When you make tough decisions, then you'll get that type of reaction, because everyone's not going to be in agreement with those decisions."

In its announcement of the decision, Tennessee cited an internal audit, done with consultation from Nike representation, that determined the Power T logo was the university's primary mark.

Hart said he met individually and collectively with the head coaches of Tennessee's women's programs and then with those teams to give them the chance to respond and voice their opinions regarding the proposed change.

"Some did, and some were disappointed," he said, "but by and large, they all understood and everyone was on board."

The decision to keep the Lady Vols logo and moniker for the women's basketball program was " ecause of the accomplishments and legacy of the championship program built by Coach Pat Summitt and her former players," according to Tennessee's release.

"I can assure you, it will be good when all is said and done," Hart said in February. "When we're in the transition with Nike, when all the new uniforms begin to roll out, it will be good for all parties concerned, and we will not forget and we will continue to honor the tradition of Lady Vols. Nike will continue to produce Lady Vol logos on merchandise."

Neither Goodfriend nor Bradley is sure when they'll get their first shipments of Nike Tennessee merchandise. Both are hoping it will be soon. Tennessee already announced the only places to get the new gear Wednesday will be at the team store in Neyland Stadium and online through its official website.

Both store owners know, though, the items probably won't last long once they do arrive.

"We've got to remember it's a marathon and not a sprint, but I do think there will be some initial excitement," Goodfriend said. "I think the first couple of weeks, for sure, you'll have the die-hards waiting on the doorsteps, which is awesome.

"If I wasn't in the business, I'd probably be one of those."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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